I’m in a highly privileged position – I don’t promote folks; I don’t have plans to promote folks; the classes I teach are not an appropriate environment to even consider promoting folks in; Mike as head instructor gets to deal with that. Having said that, I still need to consider when to mention to Mike that someone is doing well and should be evaluated. Ranks are probably the most baffling aspect of jiu-jitsu, even as someone who’s been doing this for over a decade.

Ranks matter. They matter in competitions where they’re an approximation of skill for dividing folks. They matter in class where our position in the hierarchical line is effectively a status symbol within the group. They matter because we make a big deal about them when someone gets promoted – clapping, cheering, congratulating them. They matter because we all have expectations for people of a given rank that causes us to be upset when someone who doesn’t meet those expectations has been promoted or when someone who far exceeds them is still competing at a rank lower than we would expect (i.e. sandbagging). Those expectations drive impostor syndrome and you end up with skilled folks who explicitly don’t want to be promoted because it could be called into question if they’re “legit”.

Ranks are made up non-sense. They’re subjective to the instructor and any personal expectations or hang-ups you have are your own. There’s no objective test that everyone agrees on that if you pass you’re a blue belt and if you fail you’re not. They don’t represent who can beat whom, how much someone knows, or how long someone has been training – they’re at best proxies for those, and those are hopefully things that are considered when an instructor is promoting, but they’re not guarantees. Not all black belts have been training for over a decade. Not all black belts will be super knowledgeable in a given area of grappling. This is the pretense of the “ranks don’t matter” speech that you’ve either given or received at some point when discussing that controversial promotion.

Ranks are a useful tool. Hierarchy and stratification are useful tools. Having a new student be able to walk into a class and know the darker the belt the more likely that person can help answer a question is super useful. Having a system where you can know when you have been deemed to have enough experience to teach and potentially evaluate others for ranks is useful for maintaining the system. Having relatively accurate approximations of skill for the purposes of competitions is useful, and let’s face it, helps bring in more money by making the events accessible to a larger pool of people. Ranks give people relatively short-term goals to focus on and stripes (as a sub-rank) let instructors give someone a physical representation that they’re making progress to help them emotionally when they don’t feel or can’t see the progress they’re making.

We attach a lot to ranks; way more than they’re probably intended to represent, but that’s the rub – they mean what we let them mean, what we make them mean. We are emotionally invested, for better or worse. That’s why we tag our flair on reddit. That’s why we invest in the nice belts. That’s why everyone will be impatient when they join BeltChecker. Ranks are baffling – 1.5″ of stitched fabric determines who you compete against, what your place in the hierarchy of the gym is, what others knee-jerk expect from you, and how seriously someone is likely to take your opinion online, but what constitutes which color you wear is entirely subjective.

For the record: I think a blue belt is someone who can demonstrate chill and an application of the fundamentals; a purple belt is someone with enough knowledge of the fundamentals to confidently teach and begin debugging their own grappling; a brown belt doesn’t necessarily know all of grappling, but has an answer for any given situation and is just missing some details before they have a mastery-level knowledge; a black belt is someone who has a mastery-level knowledge. Those are all very purposely super broad. I don’t give a shit if you can demonstrate 1000 techniques if you can’t show chill when rolling. I’m also not in a position to promote, so I can be entirely wrong and everything will still work out fine.

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